Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Definition Drift: Contemporary versus Modern Understandings of Epicureanism and Stoicism

A good deal of the problem with modern comprehension of stoicism and Epicureanism, so far as they are understood at all, is a problem that we encounter with many old terms, particularly those coming from geographically distant cultures: connotation drift. Epicureanism, a term originally employed to suggest a sober and moderate life, took on, perhaps in the hands of its critics, nearly the opposite imputations. Epicurus writes that, far from a life of chasing after the most decadent experiences, Epicureans should prioritize simply those pleasures which occur in the absence of suffering: “All desires which create no pain when unfulfilled are not necessary; such desires may easily be dispelled when they are seen as difficult to fulfill or likely to produce harm.” Yet, in 1866, the English writer John Motley rails against “A horde of lazy epicureans, telling beads and indulging themselves in luxurious vice.” And it is much in Motley’s sense that we understand the idea presently: “Epicurean” today is most commonly found, often in restaurant reviews and wine ratings, describing luxuriant feasts of food and drink that Epicurus himself would likely have found merely gluttonous. In fact, such criticisms had obviously already begun to circulate during his own lifetime, as is evident in the following defense. It might be surprising to see how he described the philosophy which bears his name:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.

Hence, the association of Epicureanism with hedonism is one which he would (and did) explicitly reject. Why, then, this confusion? We can suspect that it stems from Epicurus’ teaching that death is the end of experience, and hence that the existence of the body and mind is all that we can know. The radical reduction of the influence of gods implicit in this denial of the afterlife raises the importance of the human physical form to the highest degree. A shift in focus from the supernatural to the physical of this order may have seemed so radical that the kind of pleasure that Epicurus had in mind for the body was really of no matter to his contemporary and modern opponents; any philosophy which denied the primacy of gods in human experience would (and does) find similar indignation.

Ultimately, Epicureanism is much more closely related to stoicism than we might suspect. And again, this relationship is clouded by the modern understanding that we have of stoicism. We typically understand “stoic” to mean “unfeeling,” and while that’s not a completely baseless interpretation, the idea is better understood as “emotionally detached.” Epictetus’ Handbook succinctly describes the philosophy thus: “The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for unbidden events.” While these recommendations can seem exotic to a modern Western audience, the idea that we ought to be aware of and in control of our emotions sits near the center of most Asian religions, chief among them Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of all of these philosophies is not to extinguish emotion but to experience it in its proper sphere—a sphere in which we can observe it take place within ourselves without being ruled by it or otherwise helplessly compelled to act. In short, we are to be able to see our own emotional states with the same level of clarity as if they were occurring in someone else. In fact, some variety of this exact instruction can be found in all of the spiritual and philosophical traditions mentioned.

The point of all this is not, as is commonly suspects, the extinguishing of human joy; it is liberation from the everyday suffering associated with being ruled by selfish cravings. Epictetus makes the point rather forcefully: “It’s much better to die of hunger, unhindered by grief and fear, than live affluently beset with worry, dread, suspicion, and unchecked desire.” When we see the stoic definition of inner contentment as freedom from painful emotions, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish it from the Epicurean definition of pleasure. How odd, then, that two millennia later when the terms are tossed about casually, we use them nearly as antonyms.

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